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Emanuel Maidenberg Ph.D.
Emanuel Maidenberg Ph.D.

A Small Shift, a Big Impact

How small changes lead to big gains.

Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock
Source: Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock

What gets in the way of trying new things or pursuing meaningful goals? For many individuals, the answer is anxiety.

Anxiety disorders can result in high levels of distress and changes in behavior. Effective treatment for anxiety focuses on helping individuals change ineffective patterns. This includes responses to emotions, thinking patterns, and behavioral patterns. Continue reading to learn more.

Too much of an unhelpful thing

Most individuals experience successes and failures throughout life. Although it is helpful to be mindful and observe internal experiences and one’s own behaviors, too much focus on these things often exacerbates the cognitive and behavioral symptoms of anxiety.

Jumping to conclusions

When compared to individuals who are not anxious, individuals with anxiety are more likely to jump to negative conclusions during events. The focus on negative thoughts during ambiguous situations typically leads to increased levels of anxiety. The result is that events or interactions may be endured, but not typically experienced as successful or pleasurable.

Focusing on the past or future

Even though individuals with anxiety tend to navigate most tasks or social interactions similarly to others, they often focus on what they perceive may be going wrong during the event or what may go wrong in the future. Some anxious individuals may replay their version of situations, focusing on possible mishaps or failures. This reinforces negative beliefs about the individual and their environment. Others may focus on possible negative outcomes in the future, which results in an increased perception of risk and decreased confidence in one’s own resources or ability to cope.

Finding a new focus

The world may seem challenging if someone is already convinced things will go poorly, has a habit of focusing only on the unpleasant aspects, and worries what may go wrong in the future. Here are some suggestions.

Prior to an anxiety-provoking event

  • Mindfulness is a practice. Engaging in mindfulness activities outside of these situations increases one’s ability to be curious and present during the next anxious moment. Try focusing on your breath or even an object in front of you, and notice when your mind drifts to thoughts or other sensations. When it does, just bring it back. Keep practicing.
  • Get curious! Although you may think you know how the situation will go, let this prediction (thought) come and go in your mind. Allow yourself to be curious about what occurs during the situation itself.

During an event

  • Don’t let your feelings be your (only) guide. Anxious feelings may be a result of fearful interpretations of a possible threat, rather than a message about the success or safety of the current situation.
  • Feelings of anxiety and discomfort may be present during the interaction. Practice accepting the emotions instead of trying to push them away.
  • Try focusing on observable behaviors in the moment, rather than just internal thoughts, sensations, and emotions.
  • You may have a habit of scanning for any mistake or something that went wrong. You can shift your attention to find at least one neutral sign or positive aspect of the situation.

After the event

  • Post-event rumination is another time to use mindfulness skills. Remind yourself that this is not a helpful use of your time or focus. Shift your attention to the present moment.
  • Some individuals find that any event may be a trigger for worry. However, worry is not an effective problem-solving tool. Notice these worry thoughts, and know that you do not have to respond to them. You can let them come and go without taking charge by focusing on the present.

What would this look like in action? One example is someone experiencing high levels of anxiety prior to giving a presentation at work. However, giving presentations is a requirement of management, which is an important goal for her.

This individual is likely to experience anxiety during her next presentation, something she now accepts. If she has been practicing mindfulness prior to this, she can better notice and label the emotion. She can be curious about her anxiety, knowing that it is not harmful to experience any emotion as it comes and goes. She can validate that her work is important to her, so it makes sense to experience some degree of this emotion.

During the presentation, she looks around the room and sees there are no threats and most observers look engaged. A few people look bored, and others are checking their phones. She may notice the thought, “If people are bored, I am doing something wrong. I am going to get fired!” and then reminds herself it is just a thought. People may look bored for many reasons.

She refocuses her attention on the presentation. She notices the observable fact that she has delivered the information coherently, which she interprets positively.

After the event, she keeps thinking about one topic that someone asked questions about and notices the thought: “If people have questions, that means I messed up! What else should I have done?” With her new skills, she is able to label this as worry and knows it’s not helpful to replay the situation over and over again.

She decides to take her dog for a run. She refocuses her attention to the moment, knowing her thoughts and emotions will come and go. She actually enjoys the run, feeling the crisp air and looking at the scenery around her.

The next day, her boss provides feedback on what she did well and what he would like to see in the next presentation. He mentions the questions that were navigated well, a highlight of the presentation! She reflects on what she learned: She can tolerate uncomfortable emotions, her thoughts aren’t always true, her distress decreases when she shifts her attention to the present moment, and it feels good to pursue something meaningful.

With these small changes, she had a different experience. She chooses to do it again and signs up to give another presentation to continue to learn and pursue her goal. As change can often be challenging, she knows she can always receive guidance and support from a therapist.


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About the Author
Emanuel Maidenberg Ph.D.

Emanuel Maidenberg, Ph.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA with a focus on coping with fear and uncertainty.

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